World’s Best Preview: Elite? Then Prove It

Checking in at a ridiculous 5,800 words, our preview crushes the competition. Leading off: Green Bay's dreadful recent history against elite teams had better change soon. Plus, Clay Matthews' impact, turnover dominance, in-depth features on the Panthers plus a bunch of stats, notes and quotes you won't find anywhere else. Guaranteed. (Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY)

For the Green Bay Packers, the defining stretch to the regular-season schedule begins on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

Five of the next seven games are at home. More importantly, four of the next six games are against teams that made the playoffs last season.

The Packers are considered an elite team. The fact of the matter, however, is they have not been an elite team.

In 2012 and 2013, they went a combined 3-9 against playoff teams, with two of those wins coming in 2012 against Minnesota — once with Christian Ponder at quarterback and once with Joe Webb at quarterback. Thus, counting the 2011 season ending with a playoff loss to the Giants and the 2014 season beginning with a loss at Seattle, the Packers’ lone victory over an elite team in the past two-and-a-half seasons was their 42-24 destruction of the Texans in Week 6 of the 2012 season.

That history leads to the obvious elephant in the room, which coach Mike McCarthy didn’t seem all that interested in addressing on Friday: Do the Packers need to beat a top-tier team, starting with the defending NFC South champion Panthers (3-2-1) on Sunday?

“It’s Week 7. We’re trying to win our fifth game. That’s really the focus,” McCarthy said. “Who determines who’s a really good team? The statistics? All I know is this is a very good football team coming in here. Really, all that other stuff is complete nonsense. These are two very good football teams that are trying to improve their records. More importantly, we need to play better. Our play style has been good, our quality of play needs to increase and we need to do whatever we have to do to win the game. That’s really as far as it goes.”

Dating to the 2011 playoff loss to the Giants and including the 2014 opener at Seattle, the Packers:

— Are 3-11 against teams that made the playoffs that season. (Yes, we’re assuming Seattle makes the playoffs in 2014.)

— Have lost six in a row; one of those was without Rodgers.

— Are 2-4 at home and 1-7 on the road.

— Have been outscored 395-342, an average of 28.2-24.4.

— Have allowed 30-plus points in eight of those 14 games but 20 or less three times.

— Have scored 30-plus points in four of those 14 games but 20 or less five times.

— In their three wins, they won the quarterback rating by an average of 64.8. That is not a typo. They won the turnover battle in all three games with a cumulative plus-7.

— In their 10 losses, they won the quarterback rating four times. On average, the Packers lost that statistic by 16.9. They won the turnover battle just once (last year’s playoff game vs. San Francisco) and lost it six times with a cumulative minus-8.

The Packers hit this stretch as winners of three in a row. But what does that mean? Chicago, Minnesota and Miami are a combined 7-10, with the woeful Jets bringing that mark to 8-16. That’s a winning percentage of .333. That’s tied for the 11th-lowest strength of victory in the league. The teams that have beaten the Packers are a combined 7-4. Added together, Green Bay’s strength of schedule of 15-20 (.429) entering this weekend’s games ranks as the sixth-weakest in the league.

That’s about to change. Their next six opponents (Carolina, 3-2-1; New Orleans, 2-3; Chicago, 3-3; Philadelphia, 5-1; Minnesota, 2-4; and New England, 5-2) are a combined 20-15-1.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers sees a reason for optimism. When the going got tough at Miami, Green Bay didn’t get going. With the Packers on the ropes, the offense scored a field goal, the defense forced a punt and the offense scored the winning touchdown.

“Every week’s a new and different week, depending on injuries and how you match up and that kind of thing,” Capers said. “You saw last week how fast things can change around. We were pretty much in control defensively in the first half, then the first three series (of the second half), they hit some plays and got it going. That’s the way this game is. It’s a game of momentum. The fortunate thing Sunday is when we had to do it, we went out and got it done. That was encouraging to me because I’ve seen times when we couldn’t get it done in a four-minute situation.”

Here are Green Bay's last 14 results against teams that qualified for the playoffs in that season:

Game/SeasonOpponentW/LScoreRodgersOpp QBGive/Take
Game 1/2014at SeattleL16-3681.5110.90
 
Playoffs/2013San FranciscoL20-2397.875.3+1
Game 9/2013PhiladelphiaL13-27DNP149.3-1
Game 3/2013at CincinnatiL30-3464.5105.50
Game 1/2013at San FranciscoL28-34102.6129.4-2
 
Playoffs/2012at San FranciscoL31-4591.591.2-1
Playoffs/2012MinnesotaW24-10104.954.9+3
Game 16/2012at MinnesotaL34-37131.8120.2-1
Game 12/2012MinnesotaW23-1498.041.9+1
Game 6/2012at HoustonW42-24133.845.4+3
Game 5/2012at IndianapolisL27-30103.081.00
Game 3/2012at SeattleL12-1481.599.30
Game 1/2012San FranciscoL22-3093.3125.6-1
 
Playoffs/2011N.Y. GiantsL20-3778.5114.5-3

Tasty turnovers

The Packers, in their never-ending search for new revenue streams to make sure they’re able to pay their players above minimum wage, should consider opening a bakery.

That because turnovers are definitely in season.

Entering this week’s games, the Packers and Patriots are a league-best plus-9 in turnover margin. Compare that to Green Bay’s minus-3 in 2013 — the only season of the McCarthy era in which it was less than plus-7. Green Bay has forced 13 turnovers — including 11 in the last four games. Only New England (14) and Houston (14) have forced more.

Just as impressively, considering the awful fumbles to start the games against the Jets and Lions, the Packers have only four giveaways this season. Only San Diego (two), Cleveland (two) and Arizona (three) have fewer.

It’s been a winning recipe, considering the inconsistencies on both sides of the ball and the inability of the offense to run the ball and the defense to stop the run.

“Our defense is doing a great job of creating turnovers,” Aaron Rodgers said. “We’re right at the top of the league in turnover advantage. I think that’s directly related to I believe 13 turnovers that our D has caused. We do a good job taking care of the football but the defense needs to take it away like they have been doing. We’re still low in areas where we’d like to be better offensively to take some pressure off our defense.”

It goes without saying that turnovers are the NFL’s ultimate barometer. Just look at the six teams that are at least plus-5. New England (plus-9) is in first place in the AFC East. Green Bay (plus-9) is in first place in the NFC North. Arizona (plus-8) is in first place in the NFC West. San Diego (plus-7) is in first place in the AFC West. Carolina (plus-5) is in first place in the NFC South. San Francisco (plus-5) is in second place in the NFC West, behind the aforementioned Cardinals.

During McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers are 61-8-1 (.879) when winning the turnover battle and 9-27 (.250) when losing. It’s also one reason behind Green Bay’s home dominance (discussed later). Since 2009, it ranks second with a plus-47 differential and third with 90 takeaways in home games. The Packers have forced at least two turnovers in 26 of 42 home games during that span, posting a 24-2 record.

Offensively, it starts with Rodgers. He’s thrown only one interception and has gone 170 pass attempts without one. That pick came at Seattle in Week 1, with receiver Jordy Nelson saying that wayward pass was counted as a drop. Rodgers’ interception rate of 0.53 percent leads the league among quarterbacks with at least 90 attempts.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Nelson said. “I think that's our No. 1 goal. If we can come away turnover-free, the chances of us winning the game is very high. It's him not throwing a pick, it's us breaking something up, it's making sure guys have ball security throughout the run game and pass game, and the guys up front doing a good job that they can't get the strip-sack. So, it goes across the board. We take a lot of pride in it. It's our No. 1 thing when we go into a game. If we come out turnover-free, then with our defense and the way they're getting turnovers, we'll be in a good position to win the game.”

Defensively, it starts with interceptions. With Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Mike Daniels, the Packers have a formidable pass rush. To give their quarterback a chance, most teams have been keeping an extra man for protection, which means fewer places to throw the ball against a ballhawking secondary. The Packers rank second in picks (nine) and interception percentage (4.41). Last season, Green Bay intercepted 11 passes and finished 25th in interception percentage (2.04, which is less than half of this year’s rate).

“I think what we've seen, especially through these first six weeks,” Matthews said, “is teams that are so protection-oriented that they're trying their absolute best to slow us down and it's created awesome opportunities for our DBs to come up and make plays. And that's exactly what we've been doing.”

The Clay factor

It’s not quite “Where’s Waldo?” but “Where’s Clay?” has been the topic du jour this week after he went without a tackle last week against Miami and recorded only two tackles the past three games.

“I feel good about the way Clay’s been playing,” Capers said. “Maybe the production doesn’t look like what we’re used to seeing out of Clay, but I think Clay has been playing very well. I think when you look at the games, most of the time there are three or four plays where he’s made the kind of plays that can change the game around. And I think if a guy is playing like Clay does — he’s playing hard, he’s doing his job — that the production sooner or later will come, because he’s just that talented a guy. He’s smart, he prepares, he’s instinctive and we’ll see the production come, I believe.”

With one sack in six games, he’s in the midst of his worst stretch since 2011, when he had one sack in his final six games and finished with a career-low six.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wasn’t buying it, though. Stopping Matthews will be a focal point of Carolina’s game plan.

“Well, statistically, that can be jaded to a degree,” Newton said in his conference call on Wednesday. “You watch him on film, he’s still disrupting the run game as well as the passing game by getting to the quarterback. No matter if he gets the sack or tackle, his presence is certainly felt.”

As a rookie in 2009, Matthews had one sack in five games but finished with 10. In 2010, he also had a stretch of one sack in five games en route to piling up 13.5. So, there’s some credence to everyone’s contention that the sacks will come.

“As a competitor, of course I’d love to have 10 tackles, 10 sacks,” Matthews said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. I’d love to be on the board by making that impact. But at the same time, yeah, you know how it is: sacks come in bunches and they’ll come for me. I’ve proven over the years that when I’m on the field, I’ll make my plays. That’ll happen. Hopefully it doesn’t happen too often where I’m blanked like that, but at the same time, I think there’s some aspects of the game that aren’t statistically shown, and I think we know that within the organization.”

It helps that Green Bay’s defense has been playing better after a slow start. Since halftime of the Week 2 game against the Jets, that unit has allowed 64 points in the past 18 quarters. It’s worth noting that Matthews is tied for seventh in the league among 3-4 outside linebackers with six quarterback hits and tied for eighth with three tackles for losses, according to league data; he’s 12th with a total of 18 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. And, according to the league’s statistical database, the Packers allow 0.62 yards less per pass play with Matthews in the game compared to when he’s on the sideline. So, there’s impact. It’s just a bit beyond the box score.

“I think he’s playing obviously well enough for us to be winning,” Peppers said. “He adds a threat to this defense that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, so we need him to continue playing how he plays because, like we know, the sacks and the numbers are going to come — for all of us. I try to stress to him not to get down on himself because he’s not making all these big plays so far, but that’s going to come. He just needs to continue to play his game and play within himself and everything else is going to work out.”

The other sideline

Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft, made his second career start against the Packers on Sept. 18, 2011. The Packers won 30-23 but Newton showed his enormous potential by passing for 432 yards and providing 53 of the team’s 71 rushing yards.

Now in his fourth year, Newton has been sensational. Through his first three seasons, his 11,299 passing yards and 2,032 rushing yards gave him a total of 13,331 total yards. Among quarterbacks in their first three seasons, that’s the most in NFL history by about 800 yards (Peyton Manning, 12,538). His 92 total touchdowns trail only Dan Marino’s 100. His 28 rushing touchdowns are 12 more than any quarterback (Steve Grogan, 16). For any three-year stretch in NFL history, Newton is the only quarterback with 50-plus touchdown passes and 25-plus rushing touchdowns.

More than just a stats machine, Newton helped Carolina overcome an 0-2 start to win the NFC South last season. He did it by authoring four game-winning drives, including against San Francisco, New England and New Orleans – each of those teams made the playoffs. The Panthers, who were expected to plunge in the standings due to free-agent losses, are back in first place through six weeks.

That growth is what’s impressed coach Ron Rivera, whose tenure in Carolina has mirrored Newton’s.

“I think his overall base fundamentals of a quarterback,” Rivera, in his conference call, said when asked where Newton’s shown the most improvement. “I see his footwork getting better. I see him go through progressions more so now and he’s really become more of a complete player, more of a complete quarterback. You might sit there and say, ‘He doesn’t have that ability or he doesn’t have this ability,’ well, I’ll tell you what, the way he’s played since he came back the last five weeks has been very solid. I’m excited for who he’s become as a football player.”

While the focus this week has been on Newton’s running ability – for good reason after his 107-yard output against Cincinnati – his passing ability is what’s really grown since these teams last met. In that game in 2011, the Panthers were done in by Newton’s three interceptions. This season, he’s thrown only two in 175 attempts.

“Yeah, but those two shouldn’t even have been,” a disgusted Newton said. “That’s just me understanding and knowing what I can and can’t do. One of those interceptions was a nasty interception last week late in the game and our defense tried to hold them up as best as possible. I can’t put our defense in that type of position if I expect to win football games. One thing that great quarterbacks do – when you look at Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and those guys that have done it for so long, they do a great job of protecting the football. That’s one thing that I have to mindful of is just protecting it. Throwing it away may be better than just trying to force the ball and just take what the defense gives you.”

— Last season, Newton was slinging passes to wide receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, with those three combining for almost 150 receptions and 1,950 yards with 14 touchdowns. None of the three remain, which has made the quick rise of towering first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin critical to the Panthers’ offensive success.

At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he’s an imposing weapon, even if he’s still learning the nuances of the game after playing only two seasons at Florida State and starring for only one of them. Getting by on sheer ability in some respects, Benjamin is second among rookies with 31 receptions and first with 416 yards and four touchdowns. He was the Rookie of the Month for September, with all three of his touchdowns coming from 25-plus yards.

“Benji, he’s everything we’ve wanted,” Newton said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him and more. He’s a young kid but his role on this team is by far not young. He’s taken the approach as a veteran and he’s playing it like it each and every week. (His ultimate success) just comes down to coaching and how much he’s willing to accept it. He comes out each and every day with the sound mind to get better. That’s what I respect about him.”

Asked about Benjamin, Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt laughed for a moment. After all, his players face Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery twice a year.

“We play Calvin every year, so he can’t be much better than him, can he?” Whitt said. “We go against Calvin, we go against Brandon, we go against Alshon. We go against big guys twice a year. He’s another big guy. He reminds me of Calvin when Calvin first came out early on. They’re sort of using him how (the Lions did). He’s a talented player.”

— Defense was supposed to be Carolina’s calling card. Last year, the Panthers ranked in the top five in just about every meaningful defensive stat. The Panthers were fourth in points allowed (15.1 per game), second in total yards (301.3), second in rushing yards (86.9), sixth in passing yards (214.3), fifth in interception percentage (3.55), first in sack percentage (10.66) and second in first downs (17.4).

It’s a different story this year, where the Panthers have fallen dramatically in every category other than interceptions. They rank 24th in points (26.2), 26th in yards (392.5), 27th in rushing (140.2), 20th in passing (252.3), 10th in interception percentage (3.14), 17th in sack percentage (5.83) and 25th in first downs (22.2).

“We did have more expectations on the defensive side,” Rivera said. “I will say one thing: The three teams that we struggled against obviously are top-10 offenses and they played like it against us.”

That’s true. The Panthers started 2-0 by allowing a total of 21 points against Tampa Bay and Detroit, but they lost to Pittsburgh and Baltimore by allowing a total of 75, beat Chicago by allowing 24 and tied Cincinnati by giving up 37.

The absence of Greg Hardy, whose legal problems sent him to the exempt list after Week 1, created a tremendous void. Last season, he ranked third in the NFL with 15 sacks and 29 quarterback hits, by the league’s count.

The star of the unit is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the NFL with 74 tackles. He was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He’s one of only eight players in NFL history with that defensive double (Charles Woodson is one of the others) and only Kuechly and Lawrence Taylor did it in back-to-back seasons.

“I think the one thing that you notice as far as a linebacker is concerned, he has the best first step I’ve seen,” said Rivera, who played linebacker for the Bears alongside Mike Singletary. “Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a very good step and he adjusts off the bat as quick as anybody I’ve been around. He’s a terrific tackler, sure-handed, plays downhill for the most part. He has a great knack and skill for where the ball’s going and he’s got a great second gear, he really does. He’s very competitive.”

— One of the Panthers’ other linebackers is A.J. Klein, who grew up just down the road in Kimberly, Wis. After leading the Papermakers to back-to-back state titles as a 210-pound linebacker, he didn’t receive any offers from major-conference schools. He wound up at Iowa State and grew into an elite defender.

As a senior, Klein was a unanimous first-team all-Big 12 selection and an honorable mention for Defensive Player of the Year, an award he won as a junior. The tackling machine piled up 117 stops in 2012 and finished his career with 368 after three consecutive seasons of at least 111 tackles. Plus, he tied the NCAA record for a linebacker by taking four of his five career interceptions back for touchdowns.

Klein was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. He’s listed No. 2 on the Panthers’ depth chart at strong-side outside linebacker behind 10-year vet Chase Blackburn but he’s fifth on the team with 23 tackles.

“It’s going to be fun,” he told Panthers.com. “I’m really looking forward to being in front of family and friends. A lot of community is going to be out in support and hopefully wearing Panthers stuff instead of Packers stuff this weekend.”

Klein said he’s been to Lambeau Field a few times. The last time was in 2008, when he watched the Panthers beat the Packers 35-31.

“Just excited to get back. It’ll be fun,” he said. “It’s kind of a cool thing. Now I’ll be going back for the first time being part of the Carolina Panthers.”

History lessons

— Nelson is off to as good a start as any receiver in Packers history — an impressive statement considering Don Hutson, James Lofton, Sterling Sharpe and Donald Driver are among the brilliant receivers to have caught passes for the Packers over the years.

In just six games, he’s had four games of at least nine receptions. That’s already tied for the franchise record, established by Driver (twice), Sharpe (twice), Robert Brooks and Hutson, and it’s two more than anyone in the league this season. Nelson’s 43 receptions tie Sharpe’s franchise record for most in the opening six games of the season. Sharpe did that in 1993, when he set a league record with 112 receptions.

Not surprisingly, those historical nuggets didn’t mean much to Nelson.

“It's great whenever you're getting into the history books of the Packers, but I think it's, what, six games through? To me, it's a random stat,” Nelson said. “Trust me, I wish there would be more catches on there already, just based off the things I could have done better. It's great, but that's not our goal is those numbers.”

— For his career, Rodgers has thrown 59 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions in helping the Packers to a league-best 20-5 record in October since he took over as the starter in 2008. How dominant is Rodgers’ October touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.54-to-1 compared to his peers? If Rodgers threw no touchdown passes and six interceptions on Sunday, his ratio would still be 3.11-to-1 — better than Tom Brady’s second-ranked 3.08-to-1.

— Rodgers and Newton both made history last week. In a 27-24 win at Miami, Rodgers became the only quarterback in NFL history with at least 15 touchdown passes and zero or one interceptions through the first six games. He’s tossed 15 touchdowns and one pick this season. The interception came at Seattle in Week 1, with Rodgers taking the blame for a poor pass and Nelson taking the blame for a pass that hit him in the hands.

“I'll take it. That way, he's 15-0,” Nelson said.

In Carolina’s 37-37 tie at Cincinnati, Newton became the only player to throw for at least 250 yards and two touchdowns and rush for 100 yards and one touchdown in game. Actually, that’s been accomplished twice in NFL history — Newton also did it against Atlanta on Dec. 9, 2012.

— The Packers lead the series 7-4. That includes the 1996 NFC Championship Game, in which the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Capers-coached Panthers 30-13. Brett Favre threw for 292 yards and Dorsey Levens rushed for 88 yards and added 117 receiving yards, including a memorable 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Noteworthy numbers

— Carolina’s passing game has been carried in part by a familiar face, tight end Greg Olsen. He’s caught 33 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns this season, leading the Panthers in the first and third of those categories. Among tight ends, Olsen ranks third in receptions, second in yards and third in touchdowns.

“He’s one of our key contributors to this offense and we’re going to need him to keep playing at a high level,” Newton said. “It’s a great weapon that we have in our arsenal. Whether it’s Kelvin or Greg, those guys possess a form that makes my job a lot easier.”

Olsen, who played for the Bears from 2007 through 2010, caught 69 passes for 843 yards and five touchdowns for Carolina in 2012 and improved to 73 receptions for 816 yards and six touchdowns last season. Since entering the NFL in 2007, he ranks fifth among tight ends in receptions, sixth in yards and sixth in touchdowns. He’s the only tight end in the league with at least five touchdown catches every season since 2008.

Stopping Olsen will be key for the Packers. Remember, in Week 4 against Chicago, Martellus Bennett had a monster game with nine catches for 134 yards. In nine career games against Green Bay, Olsen has 28 catches and three touchdowns.

— Breaking news: The Packers are young. Yeah, stop the presses. According to data provided by the league after Week 1 was in the books, the Packers were the eighth-youngest team with an average age of 25.75 years. That’s following a league-wide trend. When they fielded the NFL’s youngest team in 2007, the average age was 25.72. In other words, they’re about the same age today as seven years ago but they’re older from a relative perspective.

Carolina is bucking that trend. It is the 10th-oldest team in the league with an average age of 26.60.

“I’m not sure that if you can say we’re as veteran as people look at it,” Rivera countered. “You look at our offensive line, that’s a pretty young group of guys. Two of our four tackles are last year’s draft picks. Our linebackers are third- and second-year players, with the exception of Thomas Davis. I know that at wide receiver we’re veteran, I know that at defensive back we’re veteran. I think we’re a mix but, at some of the key positions, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, we’ve got some young players. We’re still developing, we’re still learning, we’re still growing. If we can keep putting it together, the future can be bright for us.”

— On Wednesday, McCarthy said “we were clearly not as efficient as we want to be on offense.” That’s a fact easily overlooked considering Green Bay ranks eighth in the league in scoring, including 38 vs. Chicago, 42 vs. Minnesota and 27 vs. Miami in consecutive weeks. However, Green Bay ranks 19th in yards per play, 21st in yards per rushing attempt and 15th in yards per passing attempt.

The key for Green Bay has been the big play. Since going without a 20-yard play for the first time since 2008 against Detroit in Week 3, the Packers have 12 plays of 20-plus yards, including three plays of at least 40 yards.

“I don’t think we’re on a roll yet,” Rodgers said. “I think we’re playing OK, scored enough points to win, but we’re still low in the league in yards per game, low in first-down percentage, low in a lot of stats — yards per play, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game. We’ve got to play better on offense, but we’ve scored enough points on offense the last three weeks to win.”

— While Jonathan Stewart is back after missing the last three games, the Packers catch a break with Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams sidelined by an ankle injury. Williams, Ricky Williams and Tony Dorsett are the only players in history with at least 6,000 rushing yards in college and the NFL. The eighth-year pro has 6,733 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns for his career. His 18 career 100-yard games are more than the combined total of the next two players on the 20-year-old franchise’s career list.

Four-point stance

— The Packers are back home, where they’ll stay for most of the next two months. After Sunday’s game, the play at New Orleans, then have a bye. Then it’s a stretch of four home games in five weeks, with Chicago and Philadelphia coming to Lambeau, a game at Minnesota, then back home for New England and Atlanta.

“It's a great opportunity ... to make a run,” Nelson said. “You want to win your home games — no doubt about that, so like I said, great opportunity, we've got to make the most of it.”

Has the Lambeau Field mystique disappeared? Perhaps. There once was a time when the Packers were practically unbeatable at home. From 1995 through the start 1998, the Packers won an amazing 30 consecutive games at home, including five postseason games.

This year, the Packers are 2-0 at home, and they’re a second-best 34-7-1 at home since the 2009 season. In regular-season games started and finished by Rodgers, the Packers have won nine in a row and 21 of their last 22, dating to a loss to Miami on Oct. 17, 2010. Of course, that statistic ignores home playoff losses to San Francisco last season and to the Giants in the 2011 season.

“It’s tough to play in Lambeau and we enjoy the advantage,” Rodgers said.

— Carolina’s special teams have been great or bad, without much middle ground. Rookie Philly Brown has averaged 12.0 yards per punt return with a 79-yard touchdown against Chicago in Week 5. That touchdown was Carolina’s first in 11 years and snapped an NFL-worst drought of 164 games. On kickoffs, Graham Gano is a touchback machine. Teams have returned only 21.9 percent of his kickoffs — the fourth-lowest rate in the league. However, when teams do have a chance, it’s been trouble. On seven runbacks, the Panthers are allowing a league-worst 36.6-yard average. Plus, while former Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman is booming his kicks with a 47.5-yard average, opponents are averaging a next-to-last 14.4 per return.

Of course, Green Bay’s special teams haven’t been special, either. After a kickoff return, Green Bay’s average starting field position is the 20.4, which ranks 23rd. After a kickoff, the opponents’ average starting field position is the 23.9, which ranks 30th. On the plus side, Tim Masthay’s net punting average of 40.1 ranks fifth and Micah Hyde had two excellent punt returns last week.

— The Packers, with their last-ranked run defense, have been outrushed by a league-high 59.7 yards per game. Carolina hasn’t much better, as it’s been outrushed by a third-worst 53.4 yards per game.

From Green Bay’s perspective, other than his big game against Minnesota two weeks ago, Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is averaging 3.0 yards per carry. At least its run defense is trending in the right direction. Through four games, it allowed 176.0 rushing yards per game, including 207 vs. Seattle, 147 vs. the Jets and 235 vs. Chicago. It’s yielded a manageable 111 vs. Minnesota and 112 vs. Miami the past two weeks.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to be careful with these stats because they get skewed,” Capers said. “Obviously, the Chicago game skewed our stats. We opened up against a good running team in the Seahawks. I felt like last week that we were playing a very good running team. They were up in the top five in yards per carry and they only had five three-and-outs in four games (but) we had three back-to-back with two takeaways (in the first half). Their two running backs had 63 yards on 20 carries (for the game). I’ll take that every week.”

— Given Green Bay’s offensive firepower, most teams would like to play keepaway, figuring the best way to stop Rodgers is to keep him parked on the sideline. The Panthers are well-equipped to play that style. Last week against Cincinnati – even without a quality running back on the 46-man roster – they had a 15-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that ate 9:15 off the clock. They’ve also had scoring drives of 15 plays and 9:00, 11 plays and 7:41 and 14 plays and 6:04.

Quoteworthy

McCarthy, on the running back rotation of Lacy and James Starks: “When you’re a player like Eddie and even James, you’re talking about big backs. They want the carries. They want to get in the 20s and start pressing the defense in the third and fourth quarters. Particularly when you have big running backs, I’ve always felt you gain 1 or 2 yards in the first quarter, 2 or 3 in the second quarter, 3 and 4 yards in the third quarter and then the fourth quarter, man, Katy bar the door. That’s the philosophy of having big backs. Part of (the issue) has been, they really haven’t been given that opportunity, but it’s a long season. As far as the way the rotation’s gone, I feel good about it, but we need to be running the ball from an attempts standpoint like we did this past week. That’s what’s important.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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